One Action Rule in Wrongful Death Lawsuits in California
Courts Can Infer Waiver of the One Action Rule?
Generally, there may be only a single action for wrongful death, in which all heirs must join.
There cannot be a series of such suits by individual heirs.
This is the so-called one action rule. One of its effects is that settlement of a wrongful death case instituted by only some of the heirs will bar others from prosecuting another action against the same defendant. (Mayerhoff v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 803, 805-807 138 Cal. Rptr. 319 ... affirming dismissal of dependent parents' separate action following settlement of spouse and children's action.)
After settlement of the action, heirs who were neither voluntarily nor involuntarily joined in it must instead seek a remedy against the settling heirs, not the defendant. (Smith v. Premier Alliance Ins. Co. (1995) 41 Cal.App.4th 691, 697 48 Cal. Rptr. 2d 461 (Smith).)" (Gonzales v. Southern Cal. Edison Co. (1999) 77 Cal.App.4th 485, 489 91 Cal. Rptr. 2d 530 (Gonzales).)
"The one action rule, however, is not jurisdictional, and its protections may be waived. For example, 'a wrongful death settlement will not terminate the action if the settlement includes less than all of the named heirs. By settling with less than all of the known heirs, the defendant waives the right to face only a single wrongful death action and the nonsettling heirs may continue to pursue the action against the defendant.' (Smith, supra, 41 Cal.App.4th at p. 698.)
Similarly, if the defendant settles an action that has been brought by one or more of the heirs, with knowledge that there exist other heirs who are not parties to the action, the defendant may not set up that settlement as a bar to an action by the omitted heirs. " (Gonzales, supra, 77 Cal.App.4th at p. 489.)
As explained by one court, the one action rule was designed to provide a defendant protection from successive suits by heirs of whose existence the defendant had not known. (Valdez v. Smith (1985) 166 Cal.App.3d 723, 727-728 212 Cal. Rptr. 638.)
But when the defendant is aware the heir is not included in the suit, the defendant "had knowledge that the suit was not the type contemplated under the statute.Defendants could have made a timely objection and had the action abated or at least could have made plaintiff a party to the action.... The failure of defendants to do so should not estop the plaintiff from bringing his rightful claim for wrongful death." (Id. at p. 728.)
The Valdez court concluded:
"We hold that when, as in the present case, the defendant in a pending action has actual knowledge of the existence, identity and status of an omitted heir and fails to have said omitted heir made a party to the action, a settlement and dismissal with prejudice of the pending action will not bar a subsequent action by the omitted heir against the defendant." (Id. at p. 731.)
The defendants had "waived their right to insist upon a single action joined in by all the heirs." (Ibid.; accord, Smith, supra, 41 Cal.App.4th at p. 697 "if the defendant had knowledge of the omitted heir, but did not attempt to abate the action or join the heir, the defendant waives the right to a single wrongful death action ... .".)
The Principles of One Action Rule Wrongful Death California:
A wrongful death cause of action is a statutory claim ( 377.60-377.62). "In some states, the decedent's right of action for his or her injuries survives, and the recovery goes to the decedent's estate. However, the usual statute creates a new cause of action in favor of the heirs as beneficiaries. California's current statute ( 377.60) ... lists specific persons entitled to sue for wrongful death ... . The cause of action is based upon the plaintiffs' own independent pecuniary injury suffered by loss of the decedent, and is distinct from any action that the decedent might have maintained had he or she survived. " (6 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts, 1378, pp. 798-799; Horwich v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 272, 283 87 Cal. Rptr. 2d 222, 980 P.2d 927 wrongful death in California creates new cause of action that is not derivative but distinct from any action that deceased might have maintained.)
The wrongful death claim is unique because unlike other tort actions, "Any recovery is in the form of a lump sum verdict determined according to each heir's separate interest in the decedent's life , with each heir required to prove his or her own individual loss in order to share in the verdict. ( 377.61 ... .) Because a wrongful death action compensates an heir for his or her own independent pecuniary losses, it is one for 'personal injury to the heir.'Thus, in a wrongful death action the 'injury' is not the general loss of the decedent, but the particular loss of the decedent to each individual claimant." (San Diego Gas & Electric Co. v. Superior Court (2007) 146 Cal.App.4th 1545, 1550-1551 53 Cal. Rptr. 3d 722, citation omitted (San Diego Gas & Electric Co.).)
"A wrongful death action is considered joint, single and indivisible, meaning that all heirs should join in a single action and there cannot be a series of suits by heirs against the tortfeasor for their individual damages.'The action is joint only insofar as it is subject to the requirement that all heirs should join in the action and that the damages awarded should be in a lump sum.'As explained by our high court, the wrongful death statute 'is a procedural statute establishing compulsory joinder and not a statute creating a joint cause of action.'Accordingly, each heir has a 'personal and separate cause of action' and the expiration of the statute of limitations as to one heir does not impact the timely wrongful death claims of other heirs. " (San Diego Gas & Electric Co., supra, 146 Cal.App.4th at p. 1551.)